Skip to main content
Select Source:



EPISCOPALIANISM. The Episcopal Church, U.S.A., is the representative of the Anglican Communion in the United States. Anglicanism first came to America with the Jamestown settlement in 1607 and enjoyed establishment status in Virginia and other southern colonies. In the Middle Colonies, it competed with a variety of other denominations, while in New England, the church was viewed as an interloper that offered a high liturgical alternative to the Congregational Church. It endorsed justification by grace through faith, worship in the vernacular, the authority of Holy Scripture, and an episcopate in the Apostolic Succession. Nationally, it was the second largest denomination after Congregationalism in 1776. The coming of the American Revolution fundamentally divided the church. While laymen in the southern and lower Middle Colonies supported the Revolution, many in New England and New York did not. In Virginia, the church was disestablished after the Revolution, and the church was further weakened by the separation of the Methodists in 1784 and its clergy's growing dependence on the voluntary contributions of parishioners.

Creating an American Church

In 1782, William White responded to growing demands for a united church with historic orders of bishops, priests, and deacons by publishing The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered. Two years later, the New England high church party sent the former loyalist clergyman Samuel Seabury to Scotland, where he was ordained by the nonjuring bishops. On his return, Seabury began to ordain new clergy, stressing baptismal regeneration to distinguish the church from Congregationalism and seeking to tie the Holy Spirit to the episcopate—an institution disliked in the South. Moderates from states outside New England met at Philadelphia in 1785 and resolved to send William White and Samuel Provoost to England, where they were consecrated as bishops in 1787. At the convention of 1789, the majority acknowledged Seabury's consecration, adopted an American version of the Book of Common Prayer, and endorsed a unitary church constitution with considerable local autonomy.

The High Church and the Evangelicals

During the early nineteenth century, the Episcopal Church established seminaries in New York (General Seminary) and Virginia (Virginia Theological Seminary). Increasingly, the church came to be divided into two factions. The high church party emphasized baptismal regeneration and opposed participation in trans denominational bodies and entanglement with the civil power, while the evangelical party stressed preaching and revivalism. These divisions surfaced at the 1844 General Convention, where evangelicals called for a condemnation of Roman Catholicism and the Oxford Movement, though the measure failed to pass. After the Civil War, William A. Muhlenberg led the "evangelical catholic" party, which accepted the observance of the daily office and a weekly Eucharist, but stressed personal experience and ecumenism. "Anglican catholics" led by James DeKoven rejected ecumenism and linked the doctrine of the Incarnation to the sacraments of baptism, the Eucharist, and confession, refusing to view the Episcopal Church as a part of the reformed tradition.

A National Church

The Episcopal Church grew rapidly between 1880 and 1920, and there was a strong positive response to the Social Gospel. Eleven of the thirty-eight settlement houses before 1900 had Episcopal backing. Also influential, between

1874 and 1934, was the Church Congress movement, which held conferences on issues of social and religious interest, the epitome of the church's openness to intellectual challenge and tolerance for diversity of thought. Many viewed the Episcopal Church as an excellent basis for a new national church because it was not divided ethnically or geographically. There was also a new openness to dialogue with other denominations, and in 1927, Bishop Charles Brent presided over the World Conference on Faith and Order. During the 1920s, the church avoided the fundamentalist-modernist schisms of other denominations, expressing a determination to uphold the creeds, if not biblical inerrancy, and arguing that clergy should not contradict the traditional statements of belief. In response, modernists launched the Modern Churchman's Union and several seminaries moved to university campuses to preserve their intellectual freedom.

Postwar Controversies

After World War II, a liturgical revival took place within the Episcopal Church, which stressed a new role for the laity. The church joined the World Council of Churches in 1948 and the National Council of Churches in 1950. After moderate growth during the 1950s, however, membership declined from 3.64 million in 1966 to 3.04 million in 1980. The church confronted severe struggles over civil rights, female ordination, and homosexuality after 1961. Black delegates had only begun to attend the General Convention in the 1940s, when southern dioceses abolished their separate colored conventions. During the civil rights era, a small group of activists formed the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity, which took an antisegregationist stance. After the Watts riots of 1965 in Los Angeles, the presiding bishop John Hines inaugurated the $9 million General Convention Special Program to assist minority communities, but this was discontinued in 1973. In the later 1970s, the Union of Black Episcopalians achieved a larger African American presence in positions of influence. More controversial was the debate over female ordination that, in 1971, produced the Episcopal Women's Caucus. After three bishops illegally ordained eleven female deacons in 1974, the 1976 General Convention permitted the practice. The action provoked a vocal response from traditionalists, leading to the formulation of a conscience clause for dioceses opposed to female ordination; this clause was, however, later repealed by the 1997 General Convention. By far the most divisive conflict arose over the ordination of practicing homosexuals initiated by Bishop John Spong of Newark, New Jersey, which led to a rebuke of American liberals by conservative Anglican bishops from the Third World at the 1998 Lambeth Conference.

By 1998, the Episcopal Church, U.S.A., led by Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, had 2, 317, 794 baptized members. Its prospects, however, were not encouraging, for membership had declined 6.7 percent between 1986 and 1996. In 2000, the church concluded a concordat with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, reflecting the declining size of rural congregations for both denominations. The only obvious growth was in Province IV (the South) and in the charismatic party within the church, represented by the Episcopal Charismatic Fellowship.


Holmes, David. A Brief History of the Episcopal Church. Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1993.

Prichard, Robert. A History of the Episcopal Church. Rev. ed. Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse, 1999.

Shattuck, Gardiner H., Jr. Episcopalians and Race: Civil War to Civil Rights. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000.

Spielmann, Richard M. "A Neglected Source: The Episcopal Church Congress, 1874–1934." Anglican and Episcopal History 58, no. 1 (March 1989): 50–80.

Sugeno, Frank. "The Establishmentarian Ideal and the Mission of the Episcopal Church." Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 53, no. 4 (December 1984): 285–292.


See alsoDenominationalism ; Protestantism ; Women in Churches .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Episcopalianism." Dictionary of American History. . 16 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Episcopalianism." Dictionary of American History. . (January 16, 2018).

"Episcopalianism." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved January 16, 2018 from


episcopalianism is the form of church polity in which the chief authority is exercised by bishops, as opposed to presbyterianism, in which it is exercised collegially by ministers and elders, and congregationalism, in which it is exercised by gathered fellowships of believers. The bishop encapsulates in his diocese the collective powers of the church; he is the local expression of catholic unity, exercising a divinely bestowed authority. The system, normal among Christians by ad 200, became dominant in Christian Europe. Since the Reformation the term has usually been applied to episcopal churches not in communion with the Roman catholic church but, while it might be applied to the Lutheran churches of Scandinavia, the reformed churches in Hungary and Romania, and, by extension, to the methodist episcopal church in the USA and the churches of north and south India, it is particularly applied to the Anglican Communion. It describes the polity of the Churches of England and Ireland and the Church in Wales. In Scotland the Episcopal Church developed from the tension between kirk and crown which marked the period 1560–1690, in which bishops were an explosive issue. The Anglican Communion claims to have retained the apostolic succession, as did certain secessions such as the firmly protestant Free Church of England, which broke away in 1844, and the English episcopal churches, which left the Episcopal Church of Scotland in 1842–4, when it dropped the word ‘protestant’, but which had rejoined that church by 1987.

Clyde Binfield

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"episcopalianism." The Oxford Companion to British History. . 16 Jan. 2018 <>.

"episcopalianism." The Oxford Companion to British History. . (January 16, 2018).

"episcopalianism." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved January 16, 2018 from